Portland Museum of Art
Journeys over Water: The Paintings of Stephen Etnier
April 9 through June 7, 1998
Lobster Boat, no date, oil on masonite, 20 x 36 inches, private collection
Few American artists have led more adventureus lives than Stephen Morgan Etnier. Few human beings have been more independent. The biographies of many artists document personaljoumeys, but they rarely convey the remarkable sense of pilgrimage and quest found throughout the career of Stephen Etnier. Etnier fused his vocation as a painter with his restless disposition, pursuing a lifelong affair with large sailboats and yachts, elegant automobiles, and private airplanes. He explored the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for over sixty years and dropped anchor off many of the islands in the Caribbean.
Emier's life and his art were intensely interrelated. Painting chiefly on site, he brought a sense of discovery to every setting he encountered. In a century when art has becoinh-ospective and abstract, Etnier's paintings offer rare examples of straightforward autobiography and provide meticulous documentation of his journeys and tastes. He measured out his life in a visual record of adventure and exploration.
Boston Public Gardens, 1930s, oil on masonite, 20 1/2 x 24 1/2 inches, Collection of William D. Hamill
During a career that spanned six decades, Etnier was both highly prolific and extremely self-critical. He altered and destroyed many paintings. He habitually rose before dawn to capitalize on the qualities of early morning light and pushed himself to paint in a journeyman fashion that trusted in discipline and diligence. His paintings were crafted for individuals who responded to his values. Although he began his career with excellent ties to New York galleries, he gradually divorced himself from the influence of the established art world. It is therefore not surprising that his career brought him enthusiastic and widespread support from collectors, but relatively little support from institutions. His chief preoccupation was with depicting the nature and vitality of light. He can be understood as a twentieth-century descendent of the American Luminists, and in particular of the nineteenth-century Boston painter Fitz Hugh Lane, whom he greatly admired. Etnier set for himself the task of recording the visual impact of the sun and its role in creating atmosphere and texture. Light, rather than the world it illuminated, was his essential subject.
For Etnier the phenomenon of light was most intriguing when it generated attenuated diagonals of brightness and shadow or when it advanced towards the foreground of his paintings. His work demonstrates a long obsession with rendering light as it moves towards the viewer. Many of his figure studies, and even his portraits and self-portraits, are backlit. In Etnier's paintings, landscape and figures exist and function within the definitive reality of light.
Images and article (Introduction to catalogue essay by Daniel E. O'Leary) are courtesy of Portland Museum of Art.
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